Before every volleyball game, the Glen Burnie Gophers get into a circle on the court with their hands clasped above their heads and yell "Crush!"
It's an appropriate ritual, because that's what usually happens in the Gophers' games, especially when Glen Burnie's Stacy Gilligan steps up to the net.
Among the area's best players, the 5-foot-9 Gilligan is "killing" the Gophers' rivals at an alarming rate (10.3 kills per game).
"When she goes to hit, it's almost certainly going to be a kill. I practiced with her last Monday and I'd have to admit I didn't like being on the other side of the net when she was hitting," said Glen Burnie coach Juanita Milani, who has an overall 124-58 record since she began coaching in 1978, including a 62-11 record over the last five years.
Using a new serve this year that she calls a "floater," Gilligan has switched from the power-oriented topspin volley to one that requires more finesse.
It's working. With a 96.6 percent serving average -- including three aces per game -- Gilligan continues to spread opposing defenses as they scramble to return the ball.
Gilligan is no slouch on defense either with 12 blocks. Coach Milani said the senior also has been swatting the ball back at opposing teams on a regular basis.
"Hitting has always been her strength, but her game has shown an overall improvement this year," said Milani. "She's more confident and her passing and setting have improved. Now the other players on the team are asking her to show them how to do things."
Need more evidence of Gilligan's prowess? Just ask Severna Park coach Tim Dunbar.
"She's got a tremendous amount of skills going for her, and I think she's the premier player in the county," said Dunbar, who has led the Falcons to seven county titles in as many seasons. "She'd be the first player I'd pick from this county. She's got excellent form."
"Her technique is so good, you could videotape her and use it as an example to other players, like this is how you set the ball, this is how you hit and this is how you pass."
Take last Friday's 15-13, 15-2, 15-5 victory against Arundel for example. Gilligan went seven-for-eight serving, had 11 kills and three blocks, helping her Gophers' squad to improve to 10-0 overall and 6-0 against the league.
That performance brought her totals to 104 kills and a sizzling 178-of-187 in the serving department with 31 service aces.
A week ago in a sweep over Queen Anne's, she was just as impressive with 12 kills and 11-for-11 serving with five aces.
In early season victories over Southern and Chesapeake, Gilligan was 32-of-34 on serves with 11 aces and 14 kills.
Two weeks ago in a 3-0 victory over Annapolis, Gilligan went 28-for-28 serving with four aces and nine kills.
With the authority she displays on the court, it's hard to believe that Gilligan was once a timid eighth-grader at Corkran Junior High when she was first introduced to playing volleyball. Other than softball, which she tried when she was 12, Gilligan never had played an organized sport.
"A teacher had watched me play in gym class and thought I should try out for the team," said Gilligan, who won't turn 17 until three days after Christmas. "At first, I was reluctant. I was in with people who knew how to play and I had never really hit the ball. I was totally confused by the strategies."
Through hard work, Gilligan caught on quickly and made an impression on coach Milani as a freshman at Glen Burnie a year later.
"I remember she was kind of quiet, but on the court she was excellent.
She talked with her hands," said Milani, who moved Gilligan up to the varsity for the regional tournament.
Gilligan's improvement continued. As a sophomore, she had an 83 percent (157-of-190) serving average, 121 kills and was chosen as a second-team All-County player.
In her junior season, Gilligan served for 175-of-202 (87 percent) with 31 aces and 93 kills. She was a first-team All-County selection and was chosen to the Washington Post's All-Metro squad.
Gilligan's improvement didn't go unnoticed. Joseph McClure, the coach of Washington area's elite Capital Volleyball Club located in Rockville in Montgomery County, recruited her to play for his team.
"The team plays at a much higher level than in high school," said Gilligan, who began playing for the team last December. "Practices are physically exhausting. You have to hit the floor more often because your shots were hit back at you more often. They were doing things like rolling to get up off the floor quickly after digs. Nothing was easy."
Gilligan helped Capital win its 18-and-under division and to qualify for the nationals last June. As the Capitals excelled, Gilligan gained confidence.
"I began to read the hits better and I knew what to look for," said Gilligan. That's also where she decided to switch to the floater serve. "I began to believe that I could play with people at that level. I knew I was getting better."
Several college programs also believe in Gilligan, who maintains a B average at Glen Burnie. East Carolina, Bowling Green, Virginia Commonwealth and Drexel universities all are recruiting her.
Gilligan still is trying to get used to the attention.
"I don't feel like a Ms. Superstar. It's awkward," said Gilligan.
Milani's Gophers have been the county runner-ups four of the last five seasons. In Gilligan's sophomore season, Glen Burnie went 14-1 in 1988, winning a regional title and finishing second in the state tournament.
"When I first started trying to play volleyball, I felt like quitting," said Gilligan. Four years later, she is leading the Gophers to what she hopes will be Milani's first county title. "I'm working hard to go to the states. I know we have the ability to."